Patriots

Five reasons why Bennett could help the Patriots right away

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Five reasons why Bennett could help the Patriots right away

DENVER -- If it's physically possible for Martellus Bennett to use his injured shoulder, the Patriots could use him as early as Sunday night against the Broncos.

That may seem like asking a lot of the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder. He was recently making plans to have his shoulder surgically prepared. Then he was waived. Then he ended up in New England, where he quickly went from wanting to go under the knife to "[bleep] it."

According to the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, there's a "good chance" Bennett will play tonight:

Just in order to practice on Friday, Bennett would have had to be given the OK from the Patriots medical staff. He's listed as questionable to go against Denver.

But if this is a pain management issue for Bennett, it's plausible he'll be in a huddle with Tom Brady tonight. Bennett played through myriad injuries for the Patriots in 2016 so there's little reason to think that he won't try to do so again this season. Judging by his recent statements via Instagram story, he seems willing. 

Here are five quick-hitting reasons why if Bennett can play, he should . . . 

* He knows the offense. Normally when it comes to these types of midseason acquisitions, the barrier to playing time is one's understanding of the system. But that's not a barrier that should require all that much effort to surpass for Bennett. He was, after all, running the Patriots offense in February. Does that mean the entirety of the Patriots playbook will be opened up for him? That might be a bit much. The offense has some new pieces and so certain situations could take some getting used to. But would it be surprising to see Bennett used to help chip in pass-protection, or in goal line or red zone packages? Of his seven touchdown grabs last season, all but one came inside the red zone, and four came from inside the 10-yard line. If given a set number of plays to run in those spots, Bennett shouldn't have much trouble understanding his responsibilities. 

* He could help the Patriots solve some of their recent red-zone woes. The Patriots have just 17 touchdowns in 34 red zone trips this season, and their work inside the 20 was highlighted by both Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady as an area they hoped to improve upon during the bye. With Chris Hogan (shoulder) out, having someone with Bennett's frame should only improve their efficiency deep in opponents' territory. On multiple occasions last season, Brady was willing to throw passes Bennett's way even when he was well-covered. A five-yard touchdown last season against the Browns and a 19-yard score against the Ravens were both good examples of defenders blanketing Bennett but unable to defeat his size. 

* He poses a threat that other Patriots tight ends behind Rob Gronkowski don't. If Bennett is on the field against the Broncos, their defense will at least have to respect his dual-threat ability as a receiver and blocker. At the moment, neither Dwayne Allen nor Jacob Hollister would put the same kind of scare into Vance Joseph's defense. Allen hasn't been targeted since Week 4, and he does not have a catch on the season. Hollister has given the Patriots more than Allen as a receiver, but he's not quite the same threat to move people in the running game. Bennett, at his best, can be both, which would stress an opponent more than Bill Belichick's other non-Gronkowski options at the same spot. 

* He's immediately their best Gronkowski fill-in. One of the benefits to having Bennett on the roster isn't just that he makes a formidable duo with Gronkowski. It's that if something should happen to Gronkowski, Bennett gives the team a reasonable replacement. That's exactly what he did last season when Gronkowski suffered a season-ending back injury. Before Bennett's arrival, if Gronkowski had gone down, then the Patriots offense would have likely been significantly reduced. Now that Bennett is back in the fold, even if the team is forced to go without Gronkowski for any extended period of time, the team will still theoretically have many of the same looks available to them. If the options at tight end were limited to Allen and Hollister, that probably wouldn't be the case. 

* The Broncos are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to defending tight ends. For as good as Denver has been this season defensively -- last week's letdown against the Eagles notwithstanding -- they've struggled against opposing tight ends all season. Accoding to Football Outsiders, they're 25th in the NFL at defending tight ends, allowing almost 76 yards per game on almost eight targets. That should mean a big night for Gronkowski, of course, but it also might make Sunday the perfect time to reintroduce Bennett to the rotation.

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Cowboys edge Raiders 20-17 by slimmest of margins

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Cowboys edge Raiders 20-17 by slimmest of margins

OAKLAND, Calif. - Dallas kept its playoff hopes alive by the slimmest of margins.

Dak Prescott converted a fourth-down sneak by the width of an index card to set up Dan Bailey's go-ahead 19-yard field goal, and Derek Carr fumbled the ball inches from the goal line with 31 seconds left to give the Cowboys a 20-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday night.

"We know where we're at, our season is on the line as far as going to the playoffs," tight end Jason Witten said. "It's good to just see us find a way to get the result that we did. ... Good to get lucky and see the football gods help you out a bit. I've certainly been on the other end of it over the course of my years."

The first key play came when Cowboys coach Jason Garrett decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 39 with about five minutes left in a tie game. Prescott ran into a pile that took officials time to untangle.

Referee Gene Steratore then called for the chains to come out, but even that wasn't clear. He then tried to slide what appeared to be an index card between the tip of the ball and the end of the chain. When the card didn't slide through, Steratore signaled a first down for Dallas (8-6). He said he had decided it was a first down before the odd measurement.

"The final decision was made visually. The card was used nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done," he told a pool reporter. "My decision was visually done based on the look from the pole."

That explanation didn't satisfy Raiders coach Jack Del Rio.

"I had a different viewpoint. I saw air," Del Rio said. "It was pretty obvious. Again, they do the best they can with a tough job."

Prescott then hit Dez Bryant with a 40-yard pass that set up Bailey's short kick with 1:44 to play that gave the Cowboys the lead.

But the game was far from over. The Raiders (6-8) got a gift when Jourdan Lewis committed a 55-yard pass interference penalty on a fourth-and-10 from their own 30. Carr then scrambled on third-and-3 from the 8 and reached out for the end zone. But the ball came loose before crossing the goal line and went out of the end zone for a touchback that all but ended Oakland's playoff hopes. The Raiders are tied for ninth in the AFC.

"I tried to hold onto it," Carr said. "It wasn't like I didn't try. But there's obviously a lot of different things . throw it away, kick a field goal, run out of bounds. OK, cool. But in that moment I was just trying to win for my teammates."

Dallas is in a three-way tie for seventh place in the NFC, a half-game behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot. The Falcons beat the Cowboys head-to-head.

The Cowboys got their third straight win without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who returns from a six-game suspension next week. But Dallas' three straight losses at the start of the suspension created a hole the team is still trying to escape.

"We continue to scratch, we continue to claw," coach Jason Garrett said. "It wasn't our most perfect performance in any phase of our football team, but the fight was there."

FAKE IT OUT

The Cowboys took a risk in the third quarter on a fourth-and-11 from their own 24. Punter Chris Jones kept the ball and ran 24 yards for a first down. Dallas then drove down the field and took a 17-10 lead when Prescott ran in from 5 yards out and then was given a shower of drinks thrown by fans in the Black Hole.

MILESTONE THROW

Carr set up Oakland's first TD with a 32-yard scramble that was his longest run since his rookie year. That led to a 2-yard TD to Michael Crabtree that gave Carr 100 career touchdown passes. He joined Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck as the only players with at least 100 TD passes in their first four years in the NFL. Carr added a second TD pass to Crabtree in the fourth quarter that tied the game at 17.

TAKE IT AWAY

Sean Smith intercepted two passes for the Raiders, doubling the team's total from the first 13 games. Smith got his first on the opening drive of the game and then added another just moments after Oakland got on the board for the first time. Bruce Irvin hit Prescott on the throw and Smith came up with the floater . He was initially given a TD return on the play but was ruled down by contact on replay and Oakland settled for a game-tying field goal from Giorgio Tavecchio.

INJURIES

The Raiders lost LT Donald Penn (foot) and DT Treyvon Hester (ankle) to injuries in the first half. ... Dallas LT Tyron Smith left in the second half with a knee injury.

UP NEXT

Cowboys: Host Seattle on Sunday.

Raiders: Visit Philadelphia on Dec. 25.

GOAT-to-GOAT: Brady puts trust in Gronkowski with Steelers game on the line

GOAT-to-GOAT: Brady puts trust in Gronkowski with Steelers game on the line

PITTSBURGH - Down 5 points with a little over two minutes to play, Tom Brady knew what the Patriots offense had to do. But with precious few of his receivers actually getting open consistently, the quarterback knew whose number to dial up again and again and again. Rob Gronkowski’s phone was ringing off the hook and the tight end knew who was on the other end.

“There were two minutes left,” he said. “I knew we had to go down, make a drive and just do what you have to do. If the ball is coming to you, you have to make some plays. It just went well.”

Gee, you think? Gronkowski dominated the Pats’ final drive of the game, accounting for 69 of the team’s 77 yards and then added the all-important two-point conversion.

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“I thought he did a great job of separating and making the catches,” said Brady. 

The game-winning drive nearly ended in disaster long before it finished with Gronkowski dancing and flexing in the end zone like he had temporarily lost his mind. On first down from the Pats’ 23, Brady went Gronk’s way, but the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and safety Sean Davis had the ball slip through his hands for an interception that surely would have sent the Pats to their second straight loss in December. Instead, Davis was unable to go back across his body and snag the football. What usually happens when you give Brady a reprieve? Let’s review.

The very next play was when it started. With Gronkowski working out of the left side of Brady as the slot receiver in trips, the tight end worked down the seam but then angled his route more toward the post and reeled in a 26 yarder with Davis desperately in a chase position. How does someone who’s 60 pounds lighter - as Davis is - find himself in that position? Allow Matt Slater to offer a theory.

“It is hard to describe special players in this league,” he said. “There are certain guys - when the moment is big - they just become bigger. The moment wasn’t too big for those guys. They’ve worked at it for years now, that connection, and it was certainly clicking tonight. It was fun to watch. The confidence they have in one another hasn’t happened overnight. It is something that they’ve built on.”

With more ground to cover, Brady would once again go back to the Gronk well. But this time, the Steelers weren’t content to sit back and let it happen. They blitzed, playing zone behind it. Lined up as the wide slot in twins, Gronk once again got over the top of Davis and found a soft spot in the coverage. The window wasn’t huge, but Brady fit the ball in there. Another 26 yards and the Pats were now well-positioned on the outer rim of the red zone.

“I have so much trust in him,” said Brady. “It may look like it’s 50-50, but it might be 95-5. You try and develop that chemistry over time, and Gronk’s earned it.”

So much so that Brady went to him yet again. It came on a play that maybe Gronk doesn’t make if he hadn’t changed up some of his training and embraced the pliability that Alex Guerrero - yes, that guy - preaches. The 28-year old went down and got a low throw from Brady, plucking the ball off the blades of glass like he was picking daisies to bring back to his mama.

“That was unbelievable,” admired newcomer Kenny Britt. “I’ve never seen anything like that between two people. That’s some connection they have built over the years. Hopefully we can keep seeing it.”

“Awww man, I’ve seen it so many times but to see it firsthand on this team was incredible,” said Dwayne Allen. “It was incredible. Tom and Rob just carried us to the win.”

To prove he isn’t a one-trick pony, the Pats ran off Gronk’s backside on the game-winning touchdown jaunt by Dion Lewis. The big fella sealed off 303-pound defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt like he was just a little fella who took a wrong turn and ended up playing with the big boys. Then needing a two-point conversion to make it a field goal game, Gronk flexed out wide right. Davis tried to jam him, but the attempt was futile. The Steelers’ safety had been emasculated. Gronk caught the fade and shook and flexed and generally acted like a fool. 

“It was just spontaneous,” he said.

The Steelers may remember it, but so what, they have never been able to stop it. Hell, no one has had any success stopping the Brady-to-Gronk connection.

“That’s the GOATS, man,” smiled Duron Harmon. “Gronk’s turning into the GOAT. Tom’s the GOAT and Gronk’s turning into one. Those two did what they had to do for us on that drive, man. That’s what happens. Your best players play their best in situations and those two are our best players.”

No arguments here, nor, it would seem, from the Pittsburgh sideline.

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